Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

4. The nineteenth-century American women’s movement



American feminism was born out of the movement for the abolition of slavery. The classic work on the history of American feminism, Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle, put it this way:

Thousands of men and women were drawn into the work; among the latter were the first conscious feminists, who would go to school in the struggle to free the slaves and, in the process, launch their own fight for equality. It was in the abolition movement that women first learned to organise, to hold public meetings, to conduct petition campaigns. As abolitionists they first won the right to speak in public, and began to evolve a philosophy of their place in society and of their basic rights. For a quarter of a century the two movements, to free the slave and liberate the woman, nourished and strengthened one another. [1]

Among the most prominent women active first in the abolition movement, then in the feminist movement, were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was destined to become the leading intellectual of the movement for over half a century, and Susan B. Anthony its main organiser.

The first gathering of feminism as a movement was the Seneca Falls Convention on 14-15 July 1848. Strictly speaking it was not a convention at all, since there were to be no delegates. Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a statement of aims for the convention which followed closely the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ...

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of a tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

The facts presented ranged over every aspect of women’s status. In conclusion, departing from its model, the Declaration stated:

In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national legislatures, and endeavour to enlist the pulpit and the press on our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country. [2]

The convention also passed the following resolution moved by Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.

The resolution was carried by a small margin. At the conclusion of the proceedings, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed their names to the Declaration of Principles. [3]

At this time the American bourgeoisie was still in its progressive, revolutionary phase. The slave-owning South was an obstacle to its development of a capitalist economy based on wage labour. The feminist movement, as one wing of the bourgeois-revolutionary forces, also played a progressive role. However, at the end of the Civil War of 1861-5, which unified the country under the domination of Northern industrial capital, both the bourgeoisie as a whole and its feminist limb became opposed to further radical change.

A split occurred between the women’s movement and that for the abolition of slavery. The feminists were incensed at the injustice of the Fourteenth Amendment of 1866 which granted the vote to black men while denying it to all women, white as well as black. Susan B. Anthony indignantly pledged: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton made derogatory references to “Sambo”, and the enfranchisement of “Africans, Chinese, and all the ignorant foreigners the moment they touch our shore.”[4]

As the century wore on, the women’s movement became more and more respectable and conservative. The historian Aileen Kraditor explains:

When woman suffrage was a radical cause, a handful of pioneers who were willing to brave public censure were its leaders. During the period in which suffragists could expect to be pelted with eggs and fruit in various stages of decay, an unconventional mind was indispensable to the women who dedicated their lives to pleading their case, before a hostile public. The treatment they received in turn encouraged their tendency to question all that their society held sacred in the realm of religion, as well as in the field of politics. But, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, woman suffrage had become respectable, and women who held orthodox opinions on every other issue could now join a suffrage organisation without fear of ostracism. [5]

With the transformation of the American bourgeoisie from a progressive force to a reactionary force towards the end of the century, its women members, who shared opinions and values with its male members on every issue other than that of women’s suffrage, were bound to become racist, xenophobic, and viciously anti-working-class. Neither women nor men can escape the social, political and ideological milieu in which they live.

Some factors strengthened the move to the right. One was the rise of a militant working-class movement from the 1870s onwards, which engaged in widespread strikes, one of which, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, involved nearly 100,000 workers from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi valley. Another was the spread of the women s movement to the South. Black women had almost always been excluded from the feminist movement. But from the end of the nineteenth century the movement started organising white middle-class women in the south who were openly racist.

The right had a number of phobias: blacks, foreign-born people, slum dwellers, militant workers. Hence, while the demand of the feminists for women’s suffrage did not change over the decades, the arguments advanced in its support changed radically. They became racist and xenophobic. Thus Susan B. Anthony more and more stridently criticised the granting of the ballot to the “brutish and ignorant Negro man”. Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) arraigned against “the ignorant foreign vote” and the slum-dwellers’ vote: “Cut off the vote of the slums,” she declared, “and give [it] to woman.” In the eyes of NAWSA the decisive attraction of giving the vote to women was that it “would ensure the permanency of white supremacy in the South”. [6]

Thus, as Aileen Kraditor writes:

The woman suffrage movement had ceased to be a campaign to extend the franchise to all adult Americans. Instead, one important part of its rationale had become the proposal to take the vote away from some Americans – Negroes in the south and naturalised citizens in the north. [7]

In this setting the women’s movement attracted massive new support. It is estimated that NAWSA grew from 13,150 in 1893, to 17,000 in 1905; 45,501 in 1907; over 75,000 in 1910; 100,000 in 1915, and two million in 1917. [8]



In different worlds

American working-class women stood worlds apart from the bourgeois feminists. Their conditions of life were harsh. They earned a pittance, working 70-80 hours a week, and lived in dreadful slums with no medical or other services to speak of.

They found it even more difficult than the men to organise in trade unions. Besides the difficulties common to all young working classes the world over, there were added difficulties in the United States arising out of specific conditions: the large immigrant population in the cities, the continuous waves of immigration into a country of vast size with a decentralised structure. Trade union militants also had to face harsh repression and terror by employers and state.

Because of the conflict between the workers’ urge to organise, and the seemingly impossible obstacles to achieving this, the history of American labour is largely a story of repeated advances and retreats played out on a grand scale. In the advance, workers try to organise in industrial or general unions, so as to include all workers, skilled and unskilled, men and women, white and black. This is followed by disintegration of the unions. A new advance follows, but this time the unions play for safety and organise only the skilled white workers, to the practical exclusion of women and blacks. This stage is followed by a rebellion of the unorganised workers, who become more radical, taking practically revolutionary steps to build industrial and general unions. Then a new, massive retreat takes place. And so it goes on.

The to-ing and fro-ing on the industrial front affects workers’ organisation on the political front, so we see the political movement of the American working class oscillating between revolutionary syndicalism and extreme right-wing reformism.

Let us outline the story.

One of the earliest examples of women workers making great efforts to organise was in the campaign for the ten-hour day – in place of the 15-hour six-day week then worked. On 15 September 1845, 5,000 women employed in the cotton mills of Western Pennsylvania went on strike. They held out for almost a month before some, desperate, went back, only to be dragged out again by strikers who went from factory to factory, breaking open the gates and seizing the women at the machines. In the end they were forced back to work by hunger, gaining nothing. [9]

A generation later, after many strikes and efforts to build unions, of which only a few tiny craft unions survived, a new step was taken. In 1866 the National Labor Union was founded. It was among the first organisations in the world to raise the question of equal pay for equal work for women and to place them in positions of leadership. “It was the first American national labour federation to welcome Negro delegates,” writes one historian. [10] Sadly, it survived only till 1873. [11]

After half a century of sacrifice and struggle, the total number of trade unionists in the whole vast country in 1878 was only 50,000. [12]



The Knights of Labor

Nothing changed significantly until the rise of the Knights of Labor, which dwarfed all previous efforts. It originated in a secret fraternal order founded in 1869, which in 1881 discarded the bulk of its ritualistic features and turned seriously to organising workers on a mass scale. The goal of the Knights of Labor was “to bring within the fold of organisation every department of productive industry,” and “to secure to the toilers a proper share of the wealth that they create.” [13] A historian of the American labour movement, Philip S Foner, writes:

The K of L provided a form of organisation and a common leadership for the American working class, skilled and unskilled, men and women, North and South, Negro and white, native-American and foreign-born, of all religious and political opinions. [14]

It engaged organisers to speak to workers in their native languages, formed assemblies based on nationality groupings, and also “mixed” assemblies composed of workers of different nationalities. In this case organisers often needed to talk in Polish, Hungarian, German and English at the same assembly. [15]

The organisation grew by leaps and bounds. In 1878 it had 9,287 members; in 1879, 20,151; in 1880, 28,136; and in 1883, 51,914. Its period of greatest growth was during 1885-6, when more than 600,000 joined. [16]

The Knights of Labor made tremendous efforts to organise black workers in the south. The threat of lynching was ever present, and they had to act secretly. But in spite of these difficulties and the great opposition to their organisation, tens of thousands of black workers joined who had never been brought into the trade union movement before. [17] Probably as many as 90,000 black workers were members in 1887. Black workers were elected to positions of leadership at all levels – local assemblies, district assemblies, state conventions, and the General Assembly, in the vast majority of cases when the black members were a minority. [18]

The Knights of Labor carried their efforts on behalf of black people on to the streets in large mixed demonstrations. In Louisville 6,000 black and white people entered the National Park, which was closed to blacks, and “thus have the Knights of Labor broken the walls of prejudice.” Birmingham, Alabama, and Dallas, Texas, saw large demonstrations, and for the first time, black speakers. [19]

The Knights of Labor also made real efforts to organise women, and the women reacted with spirit:

The 1884 strikes of women members of the Knights in the textile mills of Fall River and Worcester and in the hat factories of South Norwalk were outstanding for the militancy and perseverance of the strikers. In 1885 one of the most memorable strikes of the decade was conducted by 2,500 carpet-weaving women members of the Order employed by Alexander Smith’s Sons in Yonkers, New York. [20]

It has been estimated that in 1886, when the Knights’ membership was at its highest, there were about 50,000 women members, forming 8-9 per cent of the total. [21]

The Knights of Labor fought for equal pay for women. The New Jersey Commissioner of Labor in 1886 stated that “Since the girls have joined the Knights of Labor here they make the same wages as the men.” The Los Angeles Union concluded a survey of the national labour scene in the mid-1880s: “The Knights of Labor is the only organisation we know which encourages the membership of ladies, demands for women exact equality, and insists on equal pay for equal work.” [22]

With all its achievements, however, the Knights of Labor could not survive. It displayed a number of serious weaknesses.

It was not a purely working-class organisation. Employers were encouraged to join. By the mid-1880s, non-working-class members were beginning to dominate the policies of its assemblies and direct them against the intersts of the vast majority of the membership. Instead of concentrating on strikes for union recognition, higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions, the Knights concentrated on organising producer co-operatives which, they hoped, would “make every man his own master and every man his own employer,” thus doing away with the wages system.

Last but not least, the Catholic Church played a crucial role in blunting the industrial militancy of the Order.

In the years 1886-7 the employers went on the offensive, exploiting the weakness of the Knights of Labor leadership and the then economic recession. There were more than 200 lock-outs and 161,610 workers (most of them members of the Knights of Labor) were thrown out of work. [23] Precisely at that point the Knights of Labor leadership turned its back on any serious fight on behalf of its members. In 1886 the leadership forbade striking unless there was a two-thirds majority in a secret ballot. If outside financial aid was required, striking was forbidden unless a member of the general executive board had tried to arbitrate. If this was unsuccessful, striking was still forbidden unless the general executive board gave the go-ahead.

Following this, the ranks of the Knights of Labor thinned from a maximum of over 700,000 in the summer of 1886 to 510,351 in July 1887. A year later the membership had sunk to 221,618; in 1890 it was 100,000; in 1893, 74,635; and in 1895, a mere 20,000. [24]

The Knights of Labor was murdered by its own bureaucracy. The grand efforts to establish workers’ unity strong enough to surmount differences of skill, race, religious belief, sex or national origin came to an end. In the vacuum created, a new national organisation of trade unions arose – but this time excluding unskilled workers, women and blacks.



The American Federation of Labor

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1881, grew slowly but steadily as the Knights of Labor disintegrated. Its leadership learnt from them not the need for greater militancy, but for more caution. It cringed before the ferocity of the employers’ offensive, convinced that to attempt to unite the workers into powerful industrial unions by broadening the base of the existing craft unions was to invite head-on collisions with the big corporations and the government, and court the destruction of the existing labour organisations. It sought to make peace with the employers on certain terms which would keep the craft unions alive even if this meant increased victimisation of’ the unskilled and semi-skilled workers [25], which included the vast majority of black, foreign-born and women workers.

When a few black workers managed to get into unions, they were organised in separate locals or branches. The AFL was a “Jim Crow”, white supremacist organisation, and this was nowhere more openly expressed than by Samuel Gompers, its president, who fanned race hatred against blacks, referring to them as “darkies”, as superstitious, dull, ignorant, happy-go-lucky, improvident, lazy, and immoral. On such vital issues as disenfranchisement, lynchings, the exclusion of blacks from jury service, segregation in schools, colleges, railroads and other public places, he was completely silent. [26] Foreign-born workers received the same treatment, plus the opposition of the AFL leaders to their very entry into the country, and subsequently to their membership of the AFL.

Women, also overwhelmingly unskilled or semi-skilled, were not wanted in the AFL. Their exclusion was achieved through long apprenticeship requirements, high fees for admission, and special examinations for women. Some unions admitted women employed in certain branches of industry only. Usually in such cases women were excluded from the best-paid branches of the trade. [27] Where they were admitted, the tendency was to set up separate unions. It was not uncommon for AFL organisers to form two unions in a shop or factory, one for women and one for men, and to arrange for negotiations with employers to be conducted by a joint committee representing both. The women workers frequently complained that they came off worse in such an arrangement, since “the men think that the girls should not get as good work as the men and should not make half as much money as a man.” [28]

No other organisation anywhere engaged in strike-breaking as did the AFL. Philip Foner writes:

“scabbing on the job” became a common occurrence in the A F of L. Craft scabbed on craft; union workers broke strikes of brother workers, and there was even the amazing phenomenon wherein A F of L building trades unions built the barracks for scabs to live in who were hired to break the strikes of other A F of L unions. [29]

Nor was there anywhere corruption on the scale of that in the AFL. Officers derived incomes from robbing union treasuries, from gifts, fees, unrepaid loans, kickbacks, bribes from union members and employers; from large pay-offs for preventing or calling off strikes, negotiating “reasonable” contracts and neglecting contract clauses; for co-operating with employers to form monopolies in a particular trade; for calling strikes against competitors who refused to join the monopoly or do its bidding. [30]

The AFL bureaucrats resorted to extreme measures to keep control. They built cliques of supporters; organised fraudulent elections; packed conferences with delegates who were full-time officials; used hired thugs to fight all opposition in the unions.

The main victims of the AFL bureaucracy were the unskilled workers, black workers, the foreign-born, and women. The fate of all these groups was tied together – now negatively, as they had been tied together positively under the Knights of Labor.



Industrial Workers of the World

The awakening of the great mass of disfranchised immigrants and floating workers, unskilled workers, men and women who found the doors of the AFL shut in their faces, led to the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the “Wobblies”. Its establishment was also spurred on by the Russian revolution of 1905. At its founding conference in June 1905, “Big Bill” Haywood, destined to become the foremost leader of the IWW, said that he hoped to see the new movement “grow throughout the country until it takes in a great majority of the working people and that those working people will rise in revolt against the capitalist system as the working class in Russia are doing today.” [31]

The IWW believed that all workers should be organised in “One Big Union”, which should wage the class struggle through the workers’ basic weapon, the strike, rising to the revolutionary weapon of the general strike, which would bring capitalism to an end and establish a workers’ state run by trade union organisation.

Initially all the leading members of the IWW were members of the Socialist Party, whose left-wing members were enthusiastic supporters of revolutionary industrial unionism, and the IWW constantly intervened in political struggles: for civil rights, for free speech, against vagrancy laws, in defence of rights for prisoners, and many other issues. [32] “Big Bill” Haywood did not remain aloof from electoral politics either. He was one of the most vigorous and effective Socialist Party campaigners in the 1904 and 1908 Presidential and Congressional elections and was the party’s candidate for Governor of Colorado in 1906. [33]

But the Socialist Party purged its left wing in 1912 and Haywood was removed from the party executive for leading the IWW. He then left the party and was joined by many thousands of left-wingers who were either expelled or left of their own accord. The IWW then more and more adopted a non-political stance, rejecting political action.

The IWW made a special appeal to the migratory workers of the West. This was a roaming army of several million young, wifeless, homeless, semi-skilled or unskilled workers who moved from job to job in empty freight carriages. They worked in lumber mills, mines, construction projects, and in the fields. In their travels they mingled freely regardless of racial, nationality and religious differences. [34]

The IWW also took pride in its appeal to immigrant workers. An extensive foreign language press was organised specifically to attract the foreign-born. At the end of 1912 it published 13 papers in different languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Slavic, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Swedish, Jewish and Japanese. Most of these papers were short-lived. [35]

Special efforts were made to organise black workers. The IWW stood squarely for the organisation of black workers on the basis of complete equality. It practised what it preached even in the deepest south, where it raised the banner of’ “No Race, No Creed, No Colour”, and united black and white workers in a common struggle. [36]

While the western members of the IWW were mainly men, women were important among the semi-skilled and unskilled factory workers of the east. The Wobblies had a keen appreciation of the fighting qualities of women. M. Tax, in her book The Rising of the Women, wrote:

The advent of women side by side with men in strikes will soon develop a fighting force that will end capitalism and its horrors in short order ... in the language of Kipling, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male”. It is also well to observe that the male becomes more “deadly” in the presence and with the aid and encouragement of the female. The industrial union movement seeks to develop the fighting quality of both sexes. [37]

Wobbly papers paid special attention to any news of “the activity of girl workers” and reports of the main IWW strikes always stressed the role played by women either as strikers or supporters of the men on the picket lines.

Probably the first case in history of a union organising prostitutes to strike was that by the IWW in April 1907 in New Orleans. Philip Foner tells the story:

A large number of prostitutes in the city were inspired by Wobbly activity in the area to walk out of the brothels and demand better conditions. The madams in several houses had attempted to double the rent of the “cribs” the girls used for entertaining. The girls, after a discussion of how things were done by the Wobblies, organised, elected officers, and “picketed the offending employers”. In keeping with its principle of calling on all members to show solidarity with their rebellious sisters, the IWW reacted by boycotting the struck houses. The strikers won their battle.

The ladies were happy to reciprocate. At a later date, the Voice of the People, the IWW organ in the deep South, reported, “Girlies Boycott Yellow-legs”. The paper noted that “the girls in the red light refuse to prostitute their bodies for the scab herders”, the militia sent to suppress the strikers in Butte. [38]



Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Some of the top IWW organisers were women, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn could be considered the most prominent of them. Joe Hill, while in a Utah prison in 1915 awaiting execution on charges trumped up because of his union activities, wrote the song, The Rebel Girl, and dedicated it to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The nickname stuck. At the age of 16, in 1906, she joined the IWW, and a year later had her first strike experience at Bridgport Tube Mill in Connecticut. After that she was here, there and everywhere. She was with the striking miners of the Masabi Iron Range; with the Passaid textile workers who for seventeen months withstood gassing and clubs, ice-cold drenchings and the jailing of hundreds of workers; with the 23,000 textile workers of Lawrence in their bitter two-month long strike; with the Paterson silk weavers and ribbon makers, who endured five months of police brutality, arrests and near starvation. The list is practically endless.

Eizabeth Gurley Flynn followed a consistent revolutionary class line. She never made any concessions to bourgeois feminism. Thus in an article entitled The IWW Call to Women she wrote:

To us, society moves in grooves of class, not sex. Sex distinctions affect us insignificantly and would less, but for economic differences. It is to those women who are wage earners, or wives of workers, that the IWW appeals. We see no basis for feminist mutual interest, no evidence of natural “sex conflict”, nor any possibility – or present desirability – of solidarity between women alone ... The “queen in the parlor” has no interest in common with the “maid in the kitchen”; the wife of a department store owner shows no sisterly concern for the seventeen- year-old girl who finds prostitution the only door open to a $5-a-week wage clerk. The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of men, isa hollow sham to labour. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality look the sinister outlines of the class war. [39]

She considered the women’s suffrage movement dominated by “rich faddists”, and complained that working-class women “were made the tail of a suffrage kite in the hands of women of the very class hiring the girls to lives of misery and shame.” [40] The key to the awakening of women workers, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn argued, was the struggle in the workplace. Women and men should organise and fight side by side.

The IWW appeals to women to organise side by side with their men folks, in the union that shall increasingly determine its own rules of work and wages – until its solidarity and power shall the world command. It points out to the young girl that marriage is no escape from the labour problem, and to the mother, that the interest of herself and her children are woven in with the interests of the class. How is the IWW to overcome conservatism and selfishness? By driving women into an active participation in union affairs, especially strikes, where the mass meetings, mass picketing, women’s meetings and children’s gatherings are a tremendous emotional stimulant. The old unions never have considered the women as part of the strike. They were expected to stay home and worry about the empty larder, the hungry kiddies and the growling landlord, easy prey to the agents of the company. But the strike was “a man’s business”. The men had the joy of the fight, the women not even an intelligent explanation of it ... Women can be the most militant or most conservative element in a strike, in proportion to their comprehension of its purposes. The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front. [41]

Women’s liberation cannot be achieved without a socialist revolution, argued Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: “Much more than the abstract right of the ballot is needed to free women: nothing short of a social revolution can shatter her cramping and stultifying sphere of today.” [42] The socialist revolution is also the precondition for women to break the shackles of sexual oppression:

The only sex problem I know is how are women to control themselves, how be free, so that love alone shall be the commandment to act, and I can see but one way, through controlling their one problem of how to live, be fed and clothed – their own economic lives ... Sexual enslavement ... follows economic enslavement, and is but a gentle way of saying prostitution, whether it be for one night or one whole life. [43]



“Mother Jones”

Another giant of a woman who started leading workers some two decades before Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and went on doing so for sixty years, was “Mother” Mary Jones. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote about her:

The greatest woman agitator of our time was Mother Jones. Arrested, deported, held in custody by the militia, hunted and threatened by police and gunmen – she carried on fearlessly for 60 years ...

She was born in Cork, Ireland, and came here as a girl. She lost her husband, an iron moulder, and her four children in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. The union buried them (1867). Alone and desolate, she went to Chicago. She did dressmaking for the rich. While she sewed in the magnificent mansions along the lake front, she saw poverty and misery in the city. After the Chicago fire she attended meetings of the Knights of Labor in their scorched building. Following the first of May massacre of workers in 1886, outside the McCormick Harvester Works, and the subsequent Haymarket frame-up of labour leaders, she became a restless labour pilgrim, going from strike to strike – agitating, organising and encouraging. She began in West Virginia, going on to the anthracite area, and from then on she was with the coal miners in practically every struggle for the next 20 years, in the East, in Colorado – everywhere. [44]

“Mother” Jones was an organiser for the Knights of Labor, then one of the founders of the IWW, and one of its main leaders throughout. (She was also a founding member of the Socialist Party.) Her main activity was as an organiser for the United Mine Workers. “Whenever trouble broke out against the miners,” Haywood wrote, “Mother Jones went there. When a bridge was patrolled by soldiers she waded the river in winter. When trains were being watched the train crew smuggled her through. She organised ‘women’s armies’ during mining disputes to chase strike-breakers with mops, brooms, and dishpans. ‘God! It’s the old mother with her wild women!’ the coal owners would groan when confronted with this formidable array.” [45]

She led the miners in strikes in Virginia in 1891; in the anthracite region in 1900 and 1902; in Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, West Virginia, in 1912-13; in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1913-14; and in Kansas in 1921, among others. [46] She took part in organising railwaymen in strikes in 1903, 1904, 1905 and 1911; she led masses of women workers in the textile industry in strikes in 1901, 1903, 1905; in 1910 she led women bottlers on strike against Milwaukee breweries. [47]

Mother Jones was arrested in practically every strike. When she left prison, she agitated and organised, and so landed again in jail. When she was 82 years old, in 1912, she was arrested in West Virginia during a miners strike and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. The uproar of protest from American workers forced the Governor of West Virginia to order her release. [48] One of the last strikes she participated in, when she was nearly 90, was the great steel strike of 1919.

Like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mother Jones was an opponent of bourgeois feminism. Once she told a meeting of suffragettes in New York: “You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice! ... The women of Colorado have had the vote for two generations and the working men and women are in slavery.” In her view women’s suffrage was a trick of the rich to divert women from the real issues and keep them busy with “suffrage and prohibition and charity.” [49]

She died in 1930 at the age of 100. She was buried along with the Virdin union martyrs in the Miners’ Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois.



“Bread and Roses”

The greatest women’s strike was the Lawrence textile strike of January to March 1912. The 23,000 strikers came from 25 nationalities, speaking 45 different languages. Philip Foner writes: “The truth is that at no time previously in American labour history were so many diverse nationality and language groups so effectively united in a strike.” [50]

In all the picketing and parades, the women strikers themselves, or wives of strikers, played a vital role. They trod the frozen streets besides the men, and often occupied the front ranks in demonstrations and parades, expectant mothers and women with babes in their arms marching with the others, and like the other mill girls, carrying signs which read: “We Want Bread and Roses Too.” ... more women than men appear to have been arrested for intimidating scabs while picketing ... they refused to pay the fine, choosing rather to go to jail. This was particularly true of the Italian, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian women. [51]

The IWW always showed a genius for improvising new strike tactics. They introduced the idea of mass picketing, mass parades and demonstrations. The Lawrence strike showed unsurpassed ingenuity.

To get around the prohibition against gathering in front of the mills, the strike committee developed ... the famous moving picket line. Day after day, lines of pickets moved in an endless chain around the mill district to discourage strike-breakers ... Every day a parade would be held, with from 3,000 to 10,000 people marching to the music of bands and drum corps singing The Internationale, The Marseillaise, Solidarity Forever, and other radical and Wobbly songs. [52]

The acknowledged leader of the strike was the ex-miner “Big Bill” Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn worked with him. The strike ended in an overwhelming victory.

But while strong in leading struggles, the IWW was weak in maintaining its organisation thereafter. Before the strike the IWW had about 300 members in Lawrence; in September 1912 the membership rose to 16,000, but by summer 1913 it had fallen back to 700. [53] This pattern of quick recruitment during a strike and quick loss after it was typical of the IWW.

The Lawrence textile workers’ strike was followed in 1913 by the 25,000-strong Paterson silk workers’ strike. This ended after five gruelling months in complete defeat. Two other defeats of IWW-led strikes – rubber workers in Akron and Studebaker car workers in Detroit – followed a few months later. Never again were IWW organisers able to rally a significant number of textile workers, and the IWW in the east was completely destroyed.

Largely controlled by the members in the Western states, the IWW reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of its composition and ideas. It was impossible to build stable unions among migratory workers. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn admitted: “Most of us were wonderful agitators but poor union organisers.” [54]

The IWW was doomed to be a small revolutionary organisation, and never to achieve mass membership. At its zenith in 1912 it had 25,000 members. It declined in 1913 to 14,851; in 1914to 11,365. [55]



The Women’s Trade Union League

The failure of the AFL to organise women on the one hand, and the instability of the IWW on the other, opened the door for the formation of the Women’s Trade Union League, which was founded in 1903 by a group of liberal women doing social work, and a few trade unionists. The leaders of the League looked upon it as an answer to the challenge of revolution. Thus one of them, Alice Henry, wrote in 1911:

If the whole burden of remedying unfair industrial inequalities is left to the oppressed social group, we have the crude and primitive method of revolution. To this the only alternative is for the whole community through cooperative action to undertake the removal of industrial wrongs and the placing of industry on a basis lust and fair to the worker. [56]

Another leading lady of the League, Louisa Perkins, wrote:

... the perfect engine with which to bring about radical reforms is to be composed of strong disinterested men and women, representatives of the varied industries and interests of society, grouping money, trained intellect, practical experience and noble insight. [57]

The League saw itself as an all-classes alliance. “Workingmen ... cannot afford to cherish a class bitterness,” said Jane Adams, first Vice-President of the League. It made efforts “to set up independent organisations for the women, but all eventually fell to pieces,” writes its historian, G. Boone. [58]

Failing to go it alone, the League looked for trade union allies. it could not expect anything but a cold shoulder from the revolutionary IWW, which saw “women’s trade union leagues” widening “the separation of men and women workers.” [59] So the League turned to the AFL, despite the latter’s neglect of women workers.

The League achieved some prominence in New York in November 1909 with a waistmakers’ strike, called “the uprising of the Thirty Thousand”. It is worth quoting some details from Meredith Tax’s description in The Rising of the Women to get the flavour of the League’s participation and ultimate treachery. Initially the leaders of the League actively supported the strike. They

organised a car caravan to publicise the strike. The cars, lent by various millionaire women, honked their way through the narrow streets of the Lower East Side, “taking on and leaving off pickets ... Within the autos rich, fashionable women and poor frail striking girls ... were making merry over this exceptional affair. It was amusing to see rich women carrying cards on which was proclaimed the need for organisation for labour and which demanded shorter hours and increased pay.”

No aspect of the strike attracted as much attention in the press as the support given it by certain wealthy women, notably Alva Belmont and Anne Morgan. Alva Belmont was the daughter of an Alabama plantation owner and one of New York’s most prominent society matrons. She married William K. Vanderbilt and embarked on a lavish campaign to break into New York society’s “Four Hundred”. After building a $3 million chateau on Fifth Avenue and a $2 million mansion in Newport, she finally achieved her goal, after which she divorced Vanderbilt and married Oliver Hazard Ferry Belmont, heir to the New York subway system ...

Anne Morgan was the daughter of “robber baron J.P. Morgan”. [60]

The arbitrators proposed what they thought a compromise. The leaders of the Women’s Trade Union League welcomed this. The strikers, however, angrily voted it down, considering it a complete sell-out – the union was not recognised, for instance. The leaders of the League thereupon denounced the women workers’ “extremism” and the Socialist influence among them.

When it came to strikes led by the IWW, such as the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence in 1912, or the massive strike of women in Paterson in 1913, the League stood completely aside.

In the second decade of its existence the League gave more emphasis to legislation than to organisation. It looked more and more to the federal government for support. William O’Neill estimates that by 1919 members of the League held thirty-eight government posts. [61]

In drawing up a balance sheet of a quarter of a century of work by the AFL, IWW and Women’s Trade Union League, one cannot fail to come to the sad conclusion that the results were unimpressive. In 1910 the total number of women in unions was only 76,748. Only 1.5 per cent of all women wage-earners, and 5.2 per cent of women in manufacturing industries, were organised. [62]



The Socialist Party – muddle, ambiguity and disarray

The Socialist Party of America had more than 150,000 members at the height of its power, published hundreds of newspapers, gained almost a million votes for its US presidential candidate, won the support of one-third of the AFL membership, and was instrumental in organising the IWW. To understand its attitude to women workers one must start with its attitude to trade unions.

Daniel de Leon, leader of the sectarian and small Socialist Labor Party, argued that “the party must dominate the trade union movement”. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, advocated the neutrality of the party in trade union affairs. Even the left of the Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs, while refusing to accept the complete distinction between party and trade union work, still “continued to adhere to the principle that the trade unions and the Socialist Party were separate entities, each with a specific duty to perform, and each to refrain from interfering in any way with the other.” [63]

It was accepted that Socialist Party members were to leave the work in the economic field to the union leadership and devote themselves to educating their brothers and sisters in the need to vote Socialist. In line with this the party sought support at annual conventions of the AFL for resolutions that it sponsored, which in the main dealt with the overthrow of the wages system and the establishment of a society based on the collective ownership of the means of production. It rarely dealt with the question of organising the unorganised. Despite supporting industrial unionism, it consorted with the AFL and refrained from outright condemnation of craft unionism.

But many left-wing members of the Socialist Party did not follow the line of non-interference in trade union affairs. Up to 1912 many of the leading activists of the PWW, such as “Big Bill” Haywood, were also members of the Socialist Party.

On the right of the party many of its leaders were unabashed racists. Thus Victor L. Berger, the first Socialist congressman, declared: “There can be no doubt that the negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race.” [64] One of the most prominent women leaders of the Socialist Party, Kate O’Hara, wrote in a document titled Nigger Equality that “Socialists want to put the Negro where he can’t compete with the white man.” There could be but one solution to the race question – “Segregation”.

One Oklahoma socialist even insisted that there would be a segregated afterlife. He envisioned a “Negro heaven” that was “one vast watermelon patch”, dotted with shady trees, dancing platforms, and numerous other recreational facilities,” where they can play and dance and shout themselves throughout eternity”. This vision appeared in a pamphlet entitled Why I am a Socialist. [65]

At the 1910 conference of the Socialist Party, Ernest Untermann (the translator of Marx’s Das Kapital into English) went so far as to assert that any attempt to combat “race prejudice” would be a betrayal of socialist principles!

Even the left, despite their theoretical stand for black equality, made virtually no effort to use the party in a struggle for black rights, according to Ira Kipnis, historian of the party.

The middle-class composition of the Socialist Party made nonintervention in trade union affairs the easiest option. At the 1912 conference, the largest groups among the 193 delegates were 32 newspapermen, 21 lecturers, 20 lawyers, 12 mayors, and 11 full-time party functionaries. Categories such as manufacturers, real estate brokers, retail merchants, authors, ministers, physicians, and dentists provided another 60 delegates. There were also 11 white-collar workers, ten farmers and seven housewives. Most of the rest were skilled workers such as carpenters, machinists, and electricians. [66]

In 1906 the Socialist candidate for mayor of Milwaukee, William A. Arnold, declared: “... the business interests of Milwaukee will be safer in the hands of an administration made up of Social Democrats than they have been under the Republican and Democratic administrations.” Arnold assured the voters that he was a property-holder and taxpayer himself, so obviously had no desire to harm the city’s business. Victor L. Berger, noted above for his racism, assured the city’s industrialists that a vote for his Socialist Party was a vote against strikes. Milwaukee had had fewer strikes in the past six or seven years than any city one-half its size, due, he asserted, to Socialist influence in Milwaukee unions. “I can say from actual experience that the Social-Democrats in this city have opposed almost every strike that has ever been declared here.” [67]

In this desert, those members of the Socialist Party who wanted to organise the mass of disfranchised workers turned to the IWW. “Big Bill” Haywood’s expulsion from the Socialist Party executive and resignation from the party led to the desertion of thousands of left-wing members, reducing the party’s numbers from 150,000 before its May 1912 convention to 78,000 in June 1913. [68] Many more thousands of left-wingers were expelled in the following months, and the party lost all its vigour.

The Socialist Party was not particularly interested in working women – they had no vote. Ira Kipnis claimed that it “gave far more attention to winning the support of Protestant ministers than it gave either to youth or women.” [69] It had, indeed, more than 300 clergymen in membership. Its orientation on the AFL rather than the IWW also made it difficult to relate effectively to women workers in struggle.

Women around the Socialist Party were largely the wives of party members. They formed themselves into autonomous groups sympathetic to the party. [70] The key activists of the socialist women’s groups were veterans of women’s clubs, where they were accustomed to sit side by side with bourgeois ladies in small discussion groups. Congeniality within the group held priority over any potential recruitment for active political work. The socialist women of San Francisco formed the William Morris Club and adopted as its motto: “We strive to build the Comrade World, in Freedom, Art, and Fellowship.” They promoted education as their ideal, focussing on the development of women’s appreciation of a “full expression of life”. [71] While they expressed a loyal sympathy with the Socialist Party, they preferred “to arouse and deepen among themselves the consciousness of their own individuality.” [72]

The standard arrangement was for a fortnightly parlour meeting held in a member’s house. The activities of the groups depended on the proclivities of the district: children’s choruses, boys’ debating clubs, socialist Sunday Schools (where children were taught socialist songs and exercises), circulating libraries, were common to most areas of the country. In urban areas, the activities usually involved public agitational and political work. Socialist women attended as fraternal delegates the meetings of Temperance, Woman Suffrage, and Women’s Club organisations. [73]

By and large, members of the groups were not members of the Socialist Party, although many of the activists were. To prevent a drift away, the party called in November 1901 in its weekly paper Appeal to Reason for a radical organisation of socialist women. The statement of aims was rather insipid:

Organisation is demanded, organisation to teach the principles of a higher industrial system than now obtains; a system that will be based upon the Golden Rule of the identity of all human interests ... All women whose souls throb responsible to freedom and duty, all who seek to be loyal to God and humanity are requested to take part in this world struggle for elevation of mankind and to enrol themselves as members of the Women’s National Socialist Union. [74]

An effort in 1904 to establish a federation of all the groups failed. A journal Socialist Woman (later renamed Progressive Woman) was started in 1907, to provide a focus for the groups. It was designed to be a popular magazine, like “the Ladies Home Journal with a dose of socialism”. At its height its circulation reached only 12,000. [75]

A year later, in 1908, the groups did federate. The Socialist Party conference of that year established a Women’s National Committee of the Socialist Party which nearly all the groups joined. The same conference consolidated the bloc between the right and centre, when the party gave up all pretence to be revolutionary, and started a campaign to eliminate the left. Decorating the conference hall were portraits of Marx and Engels draped with the American flag. [76] It also held the first full-scale debate on immigration, in which the extreme racists made the running.

The socialist women’s movement related to women not as workers, but as housewives, as consumers. Thus the Socialist Party paper Progressive Woman wrote:

The home, the child, the family purse and the family larder, are matters that appeal to every woman of the working class... The average woman knows that Johnny has to have so many pairs of shoes a year, that so much sugar must be used on the table, and that she has fewer and fewer dresses for herself as time flies and prices go up. If you can show her exactly what relation Senator Bing’s conduct had with her household economics she will deign to take an interest in him. [77]

The kind of “socialism” that the socialist women’s movement preached had nothing to do with the class struggle – it was the product of women’s feelings, of love:

Sister Comrades, did you ever think that it is woman’s part especially to love the world into goodness. Can we have neglected and withheld our love, and the effect combined with man’s lack of wisdom, have brought us to this recent condition of affairs? [78]

The main political activity of the socialist women’s movement was campaigning for women’s suffrage. In this they collaborated with NAWSA, the bourgeois feminist organisation that at that time was openly racist, xenophobic and anti-working-class. In collaborating with NAWSA, the American socialist women flouted the decision of the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International of 1907 which said:

The Socialist women shall not carry on this struggle for complete equality or right to vote in alliance with the middle-class women suffragists, but in common with the Socialist Parties, which insist upon woman suffrage as one of the fundamental and most important reforms for the full democratisation of political franchise in general.

The leaders of the American socialist women’s movement, however, argued that the vote was not a class issue.

After the betrayal of the waistmakers’ strike in November 1909, leading members of the socialist women’s movement in New York decided that they should break with the bourgeois suffragists. So in December 1909 a conference of New York socialist women “Resolved, that the work of socialist women for the suffrage must be carried on along separate and independent lines through and by the economic and political organisation of the working class”, and withdrew from NAWSA. [79] This action was endorsed by several women’s branches across the country, but rejected by many others. At the National Congress of the Socialist Party in May 1910, the leaders, not wishing to antagonise either group of women, passed an ambiguous resolution allowing every branch of the party and the women’s movement to decide its own tactics regarding collaboration with NAWSA. Many of the branches continued to belong to NAWSA. [80]



In conclusion

We have seen how the bourgeois suffragists, catapulted into activity by the movement for the abolition of slavery, slid into reaction, racism, xenophobia and hatred of slum dwellers, following the sharp class polarisation in American society in the last few decades of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

We have seen how working-class women, who could not but feel outsiders in this movement, nonetheless found it difficult to integrate into the industrial and political organisations of the working class. The American working class failed to build stable trade union organisations encompassing the unskilled – women, blacks and foreign-born workers. Both the Knights of Labor and the IWW – the latter after blazing the most heroic trail in American working-class history – faltered and perished. What survived was a corrupt caricature of trade unionism – the AFL.

This industrial situation radically affected working-class political activity. The IWW by and large expressed the demands of a mass of militant, revolutionary workers. But its anti-political stance, its mistrust of all “politics” and “parties” as a reaction to the opportunism of the Socialist Party, showed its narrowness. The Socialist Party, by turning away from the IWW and towards the AFL, continued to be a party of skilled workers and the lower middle class. The result was the blunting of the struggle against racism, and the exclusion of women workers from the unions.

The women in and around the Socialist Party, mainly wives of skilled workers and the lower middle class, faced a choice between the bourgeois feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony of NAWSA on the one hand, and the working-class militancy of “Mother” Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of the IWW on the other. The Socialist Party women could not bring themselves to side with the latter, so they inevitably fell under the influence of the former, and developed a mishmash of muddled ideas. Unable to forge the class unity of all workers – men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled – they drifted to “sex” unity, the unity of ladies with their maids.


1. E. Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge Massachusetts 1976), p.41.

2. Quoted in Flexner, p.75.

3. Flexner, p.77.

4. Flexner, p.147.

5. A. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement 1890-1920 (New York and London 1965), pp.84-5.

6. Kraditor, p.165.

7. Kraditor, p.137.

8. Kraditor, p.7.

9. P.S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York 1955) Vol.1, pp.207-9.

10. Foner, Vol.1, p.431.

11. One incident sheds light on the attitude of the feminist leaders to trade unionism. In January 1869 the National Typographical Union (the second national trade union to admit women into membership) declared a strike in the book and job printing section of the industry, to bring wages there up to the union scale. Women compositors and male unionists co-operated, many women joining the union in the process. Susan B. Anthony saw in the strike an occasion for women to improve their job opportunities by volunteering to break the strike. Anthony went to a meeting of the employers’ association to suggest that they organise a special training school to teach women to set type. The employers adopted her suggestion enthusiastically. In retaliation the National Labor Congress expelled Anthony from its midst. (E.C. Du Bois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America. 1848-1869 (Ithaca 1980), pp.153-60).

12. Foner, Vol.1, p.440.

13. Foner, Vol.1, p.507.

14. Foner, Vol.2, p.56.

15. Foner, Vol.2, p.58.

16. Foner, Vol.2, p.509.

17. Foner, Vol.2, p.66.

18. Foner, Vol.2, pp.67 and 71.

19. Foner, Vol.2, p.70.

20. Foner, Vol.2, pp.62-3.

21. Foner, Vol.2, p.61.

22. Foner, Vol.2, p.66.

23. Foner, Vol.2, p.83.

24. Foner, Vol.2, pp.157, 166 and 168.

25. Foner, Vol.2, p.277.

26. Foner, Vol.2, pp.359-60.

27. Foner, Vol.2, pp.364-S.

28. Foner, Vol.2, p.190.

29. Foner, Vol.3, p.202.

30. Foner, Vol.3, pp.139-46.

31. Foner, vol4, p.36.

32. I. Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912 (New York 1972), pp.320-1.

33. Kipnis, p.415.

34. Foner, Vol.4, pp.115-7.

35. Foner, Vol.4, pp.149.

36. Foner, Vol.4, pp.126-7.

37. M. Tax, The Rising of the Women (New York 1980), p.127.

38. P.S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement (New York 1979), p.421.

39. Quoted in Tax, pp.180-2.

40. Foner, Women, p.405.

41. Quoted in Tax, pp.255-6.

42. Quoted in Tax, p.155.

43. Quoted in Tax, p.141.

44. E. Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography (New York 1976), pp.88-9.

45. Quoted in P. Renshaw, The Wobblies (London 1967), p.65.

46. Foner, Women, p.281.

47. The Autobiography of Mother Jones, edited by M.F. Parton (Chicago 1976).

48. Foner, Women, p.382.

49. Autobiography of Mother Jones, pp.202-3.

50. Foner, History, Vol.4, p.320.

51. Foner, Vol.4, p.323.

52. Foner, Vol.4, pp.32 1-2.

53. Foner, Vol.4, pp.348-9.

54. Gurley Flynn, p.150.

55. Foner, Vol.4, p.462.

56. Tax, p.12.

57. Tax, p.99.

58. G. Boone, The Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Great Britain and the United States of America (New York 1942), p.166-8.

59. Foner, Vol.4, p.128.

60. Tax, pp.229-30.

61. W.L. O’Neill, Everyone was brave (Chicago 1969), p.220.

62. Boone, p.242.

63. Foner, Vol.3, p.372.

64. Quoted in Foner, Vol.3, p.381.

65. P.S. Foner, American Socialism and Black Americans (Westport Connecticut 1977), pp.222 and 225-6.

66. Kipnis, p.397.

67. Quoted in Kipnis, pp.169-70.

68. Foner, History, Vol.4, p.413.

69. Kipnis, p.266.

70. In telling the story of women in the American Socialist Party, I have borrowed heavily from M.J. Buhle, Feminism and Socialism in the United States 1820-1920 (PhD thesis, University of Winsconsin 1974).

71. Buhle, pp.132-3.

72. Buhle, p.114.

73. Buhle, pp.116-7.

74. Buhle, pp.119-20.

75. Tax, pp.187-8.

76. Kipnis, pp.211 and 215.

77. Quoted in Buhle, p.202.

78. Quoted in Buhle, pp.250-1.

79. Buhle, pp.259-61.

80. Buhle, pp.270-2.


Last updated on 31.7.2002